I’ve been to so many writing workshops lately that I have become an expert at listening and taking notes at the same time. The only problem is that sometimes I end up scribbling on my leg.
The most recent workshop I attended was On Writing: Television with Stephen Greenhorn at the Traverse Theatre. Stephen has an impressive list of television writing credits: Dr Who, Glasgow Kiss and The Bill to name just a few, and he developed River City. He also has a broad range of experience writing for theatre and this is what gave his workshop a different spin from other screenwriting courses I have taken. His talk was largely focused on comparing and contrasting the two different scriptwriting processes. Here are my notes, straight from my thigh to your computer screen:
When writing for theatre you usually come up with your own ideas but in television very often a producer will approach you with an idea which you then have to develop and make your own. In the course of researching this idea Stephen advises that you “pocket” any material you don’t use because it may come in handy again for a future project.
It is very common in television to write for a character you didn’t create and skill is needed to get the personality and dialogue right. Stephen suggests reading scripts from previous episodes to get a feel for those characters and to refer to the show’s bible for facts and figures.
When writing for television the producer will want to see a treatment before going to script. This is not usually the case when writing for theatre, however, Stephen recommends writing treatments even when they are not required because then you have a document to work from and can check that the story works.
Theatre writing is often thematic rather than story based. In television there is a big focus on story and Stephen thinks this is the reason that some theatre writers can’t switch to writing for television.
In television the pace has to be much faster because if the audience lose interest they will wander off to make a cup of tea. In a theatre, where the audience have paid for their tickets, they are more likely to stick with the show.
Length has to be much more precise when writing for television than for theatre because you will be writing for a time slot. Furthermore, the content and tone of your script has to be suitable for the audience at that time slot. Stephen points out that the difference in tone between a 7pm and 9pm drama is quite big. You also have to consider the politics of the channel you are writing for.
In theatre you write in a genre if it fits your thematic concerns. In television you pick genre first. You need to watch tons of genre TV to be able to write a script in that genre.
A play is usually a one off and ends on a resolution. The tendency now with television is to end on a hook to leave open the possibility of further series. In Stephen’s opinion the hook at the end of the final episode should not be so big that it eclipses any sense of resolution.